The attachments of small, decorative items to body or clothes, worn for personal adornment or otherwise, happened a long time before there was even a word for these pretty decorations. Ever since humans first started to wear clothes and use tools, more than 100,000 years ago, jewels have been made and worn by people. One of the oldest types of archeological artifacts that have been proof of this, are some 100,000-year old beads made from Nassarius shells. These are thought to be the oldest forms of jewellery and were found in a cave on the southeast coast of Spain, the Cueva de los Aviones. The beads, made from small sea shells, date back to about 115,000 years ago. They were not created by Homo Sapiens, but by Neanderthal people. In Kenya beads made from perforated ostrich eggs were found, that have been dated to over 40,000 years old and in Russia archeologists excavated a stone bracelet and a marble ring of a similar old age. This shows, that jewellery has been part of human cultures all over the world for an incredibly long time.
Jewellery was worn for various reasons throughout history. Reasons that sometimes overlap each other, up to present day time. Jewellery items can be worn for a functional reasons, e.g. for fixing clothes or keeping hair in place. It can be worn to show social or personal status, of which a fine example is a wedding ring. It can also be worn to show some form of affiliation (ethnic, social, religious), to provide protection (as a talisman, such as an amulet), as an artistic display or as a symbol of personal meaning (e.g. love, luck or mourning). Jewellery has even been, and sometimes still is, used as a currency or as an item of trade. Jewellery has definitely become timeless and has been constantly developed and refined over time.
In the earliest times of jewellery making humans used any type of material that was available, from items such as plants, berries, wood and stones to animal parts (skin, bones, teeth, feathers and fur), shells and even natural made semi-precious materials such as obsidian and marble. The jewels of early humans were still in crude forms, hung on pieces of string or animal sinew, but always developing and refining over time. Around 7,000 years ago there were already signs of copper being used by fine metal workers and the first signs of established jewellery making date back to Ancient Egypt, around 3,000-5,000 years ago. Although many archeologists for a long time were of the opinion that fine metal art and jewellery making used to be carried out by male humans in ancient times, those ideas needed to be reconsidered when in October 2012 the Museum of Ancient History in Austria declared, that they had found the grave of a female fine metal worker originating from the Bronze Age, approximately 3,200-5,000 years ago.
Focusing on the development of how jewellery was created in early history, this process can be roughly divided across three ancient civilizations: Egypt & Mesopotamia, India and China.
In Egypt and Mesopotamia jewellery makers preferred working with gold over other metals. Gold had been mined and worked in Egypt since Predynastic times, especially in the Eastern Desert and Nubia (“nub” is the ancient word for gold). Gold is very malleable and it does not corrode or tarnish, so it is a fine material to work with by metal workers. Besides, the Egyptians linked gold to the divinity of the Gods and therefore thought it to be very fitting to be worn by the pharaohs. Gold jewellery was mainly worn by the royalty and important nobility. It was also often used for trade, as a diplomatic tool or as a reward to e.g. courtiers and military leaders. Goldsmiths in Ancient Egypt developed several techniques, such as beating gold into fine leaves and utilising the lost-wax technique to make intricate statues. They also knew techniques to mix gold with other metals to create alloys, such as Electrum, a blend of gold, silver and copper, that was used to plate the exterior of monuments such as obelisks and the tops of the pyramids. These metal workers were also very skilled glass manufacturers and they used semi-precious gems in their designs. In Predynastic Egypt jewellery soon was used to symbolize political and religious status. Jewellery was also put in people’s graves. Archeologists excavated hundreds of burial sites on the Royal Cemetery of Ur dating back to 2,900-2,300BC, which contained numerous of artifacts in gold, silver and semi-precious stones, such as lapis lazuli crowns, collar necklaces, jewel-headed pins, ankle bracelets and amulets. The long tradition of jewellery production and trade between the Middle East and Europe provided a good foundation for all European civilizations that came after them.
India was the first place where diamonds were mined for the use in jewellery making. They were also the first ones who managed the art of gold gathering and processing. The Kolar and Hatti gold mines have been in operation for thousands of years and are still used today. This made them one of the most visited destination for trade, which especially became important for the expansion of European civilizations during the Age of Discovery, between the 15th and mid-17th century. The jewellery history of India goes back 5,000-8,000 years. India prospered financially through exports and exchange with other countries and had a continuous development of art forms for some 5,000 years. Some of their diamond mines date back to 296BC and diamonds were not only used in jewellery making, but also to finance wars, used as security means to finance loans which were needed to help regimes in political and economic ways or even to murder potentates! According to Hindu belief, gold and silver are considered as sacred metals and both are typical metals of Indian jewellery. Pure gold does not oxidise or corrode with time and is symbolic of the warm sun. Hindu tradition associates gold with immortality (as also the Egyptians made the association with gold and eternal life). Silver on the other hand suggests the cold moon.
Early jewellery making started around the same period in China as it did in India, but it became more widespread with the spread of Buddhism, around 2,000 years ago. It had its own unique style, focusing on natural scenes, animals and dragons. In China the dragon is a symbol of power, strength and good luck and Chinese dragons traditionally symbolize potent and auspicious powers, in particular over the elements of water (water, rainfall, hurricanes and floods), hence making it a beloved subject for jewellery makers. The Chinese metal workers used more silver than gold in their designs and, for instance, feathers of blue kingfishers were attached to early Chinese jewellery. Later they started using predominantly blue gems and glass to their jewellery, although jade was preferred over other stones. Archeologists have established that several tribes were already digging up deposits of jade from the Yangtze River Delta and Henan around 3,400BC. It was valued for its hardness, its durability and beauty. Jade rings from between the 4th and 7th centuries BC show evidence that Chinese jewellery makers worked with a sort of milling machine to create complex designs, hundreds of years before such equipment was known or used in the West. Like the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians, the Chinese people often buried their deceased with their jewellery. Most excavated Chinese graves found by archeologists contained beautiful jewellery pieces.
The three ancient civilizations mentioned above created a basic foundation on how jewellery making developed in later times. Thousands of years of advancement enabled the process and art of jewellery manufacture to spread and refine. It definitely has been one of the pivotal driving forces of expressing culture, fashion and individuality as its constant presence throughout the history of mankind shows. In practically all cultures jewellery has been used to show status, wealth, religious beliefs or to give the wearer luck or protection from evil or harm.
In ancient Greece jewellery made with beads shaped as shells and animals was widely produced in earlier times. They started using gold and gems later, from about 1,600BC. In the Mycenaean period, however, they had developed sophisticated skills on working gold and their main techniques included making wire, twisting bars and casting. Unfortunately these techniques were lost at the end of the Bronze Age, probably due to the Persian Wars, causing that jewels dating from 600-475BC are not well represented in the records of archeologists. Jewellery was mostly worn by Greek women and often meant for protection against evil or as religious symbolism. Greek jewellery started to show more influence of outer origin designs after Alexander the Great conquered part of Asia and also European influences can be spotted in some earlier Greek jewellery creations. A very diverse amount of styles and techniques were developed over these early centuries until the conquest of Greece by the Roman empire. However, the Roman culture’s influence on jewellery making appeared after quite some time when Roman rule came to Greece. The Roman influence became visible when the Greek metal workers started using more gems, such as topaz, amethyst, aquamarine and Syrian garnet in their designs.
Jewellery work was very diverse in earlier times, especially since there were so many barbarian tribes that each had their own styles and techniques. When the Romans conquered most of Europe, jewellery crafting changed as smaller groups developed or integrated the Roman designs within their own designs and vice versa. The most common artifact of early Rome was the brooch, that was used as a clasp to keep clothes together. Roman jewellery was made with a whole range of materials, varying from gold to bronze, bone, wood, precious stones, glass beads and pearls. The Romans used materials from all over the continent as well as far outside from it. As early as 2,000 years ago they already imported sapphires from Sri Lanka, diamonds from India and they used materials as emerald and amber in their jewellery.
After the fall of Ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire, Europe continued to develop jewellery manufacture and their jewellery absorbed some of the earlier designs. The Celts and the Merovingians in particular are known for their beautiful jewellery. The quality of their work matched or even exceeded that of the Byzantine Empire. The most common artifacts of these civilizations are probably their amulets, brooches and signet rings. By the 8th century wealthier men started wearing jewelled weaponry and signet rings, while other jewels were mainly worn by women. While the Celts were specialised in complicated and continuous patterns in their designs, such as the famous Celtic knots, the Merovingian jewellery was well-known for their animal figures. The Visigoths were also skilled jewellery makers, who had obvious Byzantine and western Mediterranean influences in their designs. Archeological excavations of Visigoth jewellery pieces are often brooches, buckles and some combs.
During the Byzantine Empire, jewellery makers used many of the Roman methods, but during this period religious themes predominated and their metal workers preferred light-weight gold leaf over solid gold materials. They also put more emphasis on the use of stones and gems. Like in many other civilizations during those times, they too commonly buried the jewellery items with its owner.
The basic forms and designs of jewellery might vary between cultures and over time, but they still are often extremely long-lived. In European civilizations and cultures the most common forms of jewellery, such as brooches, buckles, necklaces, pendants, rings, bracelets, earrings, cuff-links and hair combs, have persisted since ancient times and will most likely be a constant presence for many years yet to come.
Gwendolyne Blaney – GSG
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